The Corner

Zimmerman, Martin, Obama, America

Remember that there is no way of using a group mean to assign a probability to some particular person’s doing some particular thing on some particular occasion. You cannot say anything about what is going to happen right now based on statistics — such as those that Jack Dunphy mentions below — about what has happened over periods of time. Moreover, the assumption that a real live person will conform to likelihoods about a hypothetical mean individual is ludicrous. Whoever locked his car doors when President Obama crossed the street could not have invoked statistics to justify it. It was not like deciding what neighborhood to buy a house in or to walk through late at night — cases where you are concerned with a group as such and, in any case, need refer only to statistics about a neighborhood.

That “moreover” cuts both ways. We don’t have statistics about which car-door lockings were racially motivated and which weren’t, but even if we did they would not justify an assumption that the car’s owner locked his doors because of Obama’s race. Of course, we could not have such statistics, because motive cannot be observed nor testimony about it reliably checked for truth, and that is even more important to remember.

Something is going on here other than the reaching of conclusions through a process of reasoning. In speaking of the interpretation of actions and events, the president was insightful. An interpretation is not an inference, even an inductive inference. At some point the facts end, along with everything we can infer from them, and that is where interpretation begins. Interpretations can seem more or less plausible, but, because we are not telepathic, all of them depend on assumption. And while there is such a thing as interpreting slowly, critically, and self-critically, most interpretation is little more than mental reflex.

What to do about this?

First, when we find ourselves fearing the worst about some individual, we should remind ourselves that he is indeed an individual. This applies in all the obvious ways to our attitudes about members of “identity groups” (a loathsome term, and a contradictory one if we are talking about the identities of persons). It applies more subtly to our associations with contingencies about a person. (Does he drink? Who are his friends? He does need a haircut. Whom did he support for president? When did he last go to church? Has he written for NRO? Or Mother Jones? Is he the type of person the type of person like me can get along with?) To see every individual as sui generis is the fundamental meaning of judging people by the content of their character — if we must judge them at all. It stands in contrast not just with judging someone by the color of his skin but with judging him by any group association, and the content of his character is not reducible even to, or fully discernible even from, his own history of action.

Second, we should distinguish between the surface meanings of words and actions and the esoteric meanings we sometime feel we can divine in them. It is impossible to define that difference independently of convention, because any symbol can be interpreted in as many ways — and any action connected with as many intentions — as we can imagine special circumstances for. This is why implicature and irony are possible in language, and why people can suffer from ideas of reference and paranoid delusions. We are nonetheless able to write dictionaries. Interpretation begins the moment we depart from dictionary meanings. The farther we get from them — the more figurative our words become — the more interpretation we are putting into what we write or say or read or hear, and the less precise its meaning becomes: so that a poem is compatible with a huge number of non-equivalent paraphrases. The dictionary meaning of a word is independent of the word’s user and the circumstances of its use. We might imagine ourselves writing a Dictionary of the Purposes and Motives of Actions based on a similar principle of user- and circumstance-independence. The entry for “walking” would be “to get to a destination.” The entry for “calling the police” would be “to report a suspected crime.” Whenever we find ourselves straying from this Dictionary and attributing to some action a special purpose or motive based on its context, we ought to be skeptical of our supposed insight, especially if the person is unknown to us.

Last, even if we can’t control our minds, we can control our actions. It is always possible and often advisable to do nothing. When we feel we must do something, we can do it in the least aggressive manner possible. You can introduce yourself to a stranger in a friendly way rather than call the police, although doing so might require a modicum of courage when you are paranoid.

If we set aside legal arguments and assumptions about people’s motives, this much remains: George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin and made a false and unjustifiable judgment that he was a threat. That assumption and everything that has followed — up to the present moment — can be and has been interpreted according to our worst fears about one another. The result for Martin was a horrible death. The result for our culture is self-sustaining paranoia. The alternative is to muster more than our wonted measure of restraint and generosity.

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